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What is right age for kids to do farm-related tasks?

Tom J. Bechman view of boy mowing lawn on riding lawnmower from behind him
KIDS AND SAFETY: Is this 12-year-old mature enough to operate an electric-powered, zero-turn lawn mower? If he is, are all 12-year-olds? How about 10-year-olds? It’s time for an open discussion.
It’s time to revisit this age-old discussion.

A farmer and I reminisced about changes in farming. It led to an age-old question, pun intended, about at what age kids should be allowed to operate machinery.

“My dad snuck me out of the house when I was 6 to rotary-hoe corn,” he recalled. “I could make the case that’s when I started farming.”

“My mom insisted for a long time that me and my siblings couldn’t drive tractors until we were old enough,” I countered. “I’m not sure what old enough was to her, but I remember plowing when I was 14. Mom nearly died in a tractor accident before I was born, and she was afraid we would get hurt.

“However, here’s the kicker. We had one of the first three-stall, side-opening Surge milking parlors around. Dad came down with mumps when I was 6, and Mom and I milked 40 cows every night for weeks. Sometimes I helped in the morning before school, too. I guess it was OK to risk getting kicked by a cow, but not OK to risk a tractor accident.”

Unpacking the example

So, when are kids old enough to do farm tasks? Obviously, it’s a personal choice, often made by parents, and often based on past experiences. If no one in your family ever suffered a major injury from driving equipment, driving tractors at a very early age likely didn’t seem like a big deal. If they did, it likely became an overriding factor, whether it passed the commonsense test or not.

For my farmer friend who rotary-hoed at 6, he was likely driving a 30- to 50-hp tractor, not a big tractor of today. Did it have a rollover protective structure, or ROPS? I don’t know. Many older, smaller tractors didn’t, and many older models still don’t. Do things like ROPS eliminate all accidents? No. Do they improve your odds of surviving a mistake? Absolutely.

Some kids are more mature at an early age than others. Some develop coordination skills quicker too. I’ve watched 12-year-olds drive combines who seemed to be in complete control, and I’ve been in fields where I might not want to hop in with an adult driving!

Incidentally, in two instances where I watched a 12-year-old master combining, both were girls. Age or gender may not always be the ultimate, make-or-break factor in deciding if someone should do a task.

New-era dilemmas

Rural parents today face a dilemma that didn’t exist in my early years. When should a kid be allowed to mow with a zero-turn lawn mower? When should they be allowed to drive a four-wheeler or UTV by themselves?

4-H tractor maintenance programs in many counties include contests for driving a tractor, a garden tractor and a zero-turn lawn mower. There are 9- and 10-year-old kids in 4-H. Should they be encouraged to drive zero-turn mowers?

Should safety experts develop training materials for third graders driving zero-turn mowers? Or should kids not be able to compete until they’re 12? 14?

You won’t find answers here. There are multiple viewpoints. But instead of plowing blindly ahead, shouldn’t we have age-appropriate discussions again? Your kids’ well-being and futures could be at stake.

Comments? Email [email protected].

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